Stanley Spencer’s selfies

Thought it might be a bit cliche to say it, my favourite painterly dude is Stanley Spencer. I love him, and not just because he is like a slightly artier version of Harry Potter.

All he needs is a lightning scar on his forehead, though.
All he needs is a lightning scar on his forehead, though.  (Spencer estate. 1939)

Spencer is my number one guy for lots of reasons. In one painting, he can fluctuate between full-on surrealism and utterly life-like places, figures, and themes. His work deals often with overtly religious themes (often revivified in his hometown of Cookham), reaching for images of ‘what might this religious/theological concept look like if it were true?’ He dares to imagine, in vivid colour, the potential truth of religious stories — which is obviously compelling for a theology-nerd and art-fan like myself. I also enjoy how his work never shies away from questioning where the limits of human community are stretched, where the boundaries of the erotic are, and how the shapes of people’s bodies have such a language! In that way, to me his work seems to share something with dance.

Yesterday I had the chance to wander over to the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge, where I have been a few times before, but never quite found the 19th/20th century room on the first floor — the one that has the Spencers in it. I was not disappointed. Besides the painting above, the museum shows a few other Spencers, ‘Love among the nations’, ‘Love on the moor’, ‘John Donne arriving in heaven’, and ‘Buildings of the Tower of Babel’, among others. Although I am always captivated by Spencer’s busy, huge paintings (like ‘Love among the nations’, ‘Love on the moor’), today what I found myself returning to were his self-portraits. Like a good film director Spencer never misses a chance to be an ‘extra’ in his own work, showing up in different paintings, at different ages, doing different things, sometimes multiple Stanley-doppelgängers in a painting.  He did paint a number of straightforward self-portraits as well. These help you recognise the doppelgängers.*

I find artists’ self-portraits endlessly fascinating, Spencer especially so because he shows up as a minor character so frequently in other paintings. Especially living in a culture where taking and sharing regular self-portraits (selfies!) is common, I find the artist’s practice of self-portraiture an interesting parallel. In this post I though I’d share some of my favourite Spencer selfies.

I admit, the first painting of Spencer’s I fell in love with was ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’ when it used to hang in the Tate Britain. Spencer has a cameo as the young man standing, almost reclining, on two gravestones in the centre of the painting.

The Resurrection, Cookham. 1924-27. (Spencer estate)

In the surreal chaos of the resurrection, Spencer’s hyper-realistic self is calm, almost aloof. How is he able to watch these freakish, miraculous events, and stay like he is? What is he saying about the unknowable shape of the future and how we can only imagine (or paint) such things?

I had never seen this painting before today: ‘Self portrait with Patricia Preece’. Preece was Spencer’s eventual second wife, though hers and Spencer’s short marriage was unconsummated and ended badly.

There are lots of things I noticed about this painting: the realism of Preece’s body compared to the thin, chicken-like, almost surreal proportion of Spencer’s; her dark eyebrows and his dark hair; the way that neither of them appears to be really looking at the other. This painting was followed by ‘Double nude portrait‘ which, after the demise of his second marriage, Spencer reportedly hid and it was not exhibited until after his death.

1936-7. (Spencer estate)

In the Fitzwilliam Museum, ‘Self portrait with Patricia Preece’ hangs in the opposite corner of the room to the following painting: ‘Love on the moor’. Spencer’s cameo here is as a devotee clinging to the legs the stone statue. The statue is a ‘Venus’ statue which also is meant to represent Hilda, Spencer’s first wife.

Love on the moor, 1949-1954
Love on the moor, 1949-1954 (Spencer estate)

This is only a part of a much larger painting (see the full painting here). There is no realism here, and Spencer is barely recognisable behind Venus/Hilda’s body. Hilda Spencer (née Carline) died in 1950, having divorced Stanley in 1937 (the year the above painting of Patricia Preece was completed). Death and grief making stone figures of human beings is an interesting metaphor, but in this painting, the statue is only a small part of the action. The human figures all around are living, eating, playing, arguing, wooing each other, bringing life into the world. The brick wall ripples, a wobbly timeline in a wobbly time in world (and British) history — the decade following the second world war.

Spencer painted quite a few other self-portraits (most of which you can look up here). Art scholars and critics have written plenty on the difference between the contemporary ‘selfie’ and the self-portrait of the artist, and I’ve absolutely no desire to rehash their good writing here. Personally I appreciate self- and double-portraits for their power and realistic storytelling, but will always prefer playing playing ‘Where’s Waldo?‘ with a Spencer painting. It adds another level of enjoyment to my, and probably many people’s, appreciation and consideration of his work.



* Apparently I write enough things in German now that my computer starts putting in umlauts to borrowed German words in English?


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